The Nuts and Bolts of High Flying
Making Alabama one of the strongest aerospace centers in the U.S. is a cluster of more than 300 aero supplier companies specializing in everything from nuts and bolts to the WiFi on your next commercial flight.
Precision-machined parts bound for customers such as Boeing and Lockheed are held by Chic Nix of Aero Missile Components.
Photo by David Bundy
When the conversation turns to Alabama’s long involvement in the world-changing aerospace industry, big final assembly manufacturers like Boeing, Lockheed, Airbus and the U.S. military are likely to come to mind first.
And while those organizations — each with a significant presence in the state — continually reinvent the aerospace industry, there are hundreds of supplier companies with plants in Alabama.
“There are more than 300 companies in Alabama that provide parts, components and services to the domestic and international aerospace industry,” says Jeff Thompson, executive director of the Alabama Aerospace Industry Association. “The Alabama aerospace supplier base is a major asset of Alabama’s industrial strength and a significant contributor to the attraction of new aerospace companies.”
The aerospace industry, especially aerospace manufacturing, depends on outside expertise to provide components, parts and raw materials that must meet very high quality standards, Thompson says. The companies that make it possible for large manufacturers to produce missiles, rockets, rotorcraft and fixed-wing aircraft are vital contributors to Alabama’s economy. Here’s a glance at four that show the wide variety of highly skilled work they do.
Aero Missile Components
Started in Philadelphia in 1946, Aero Missile Components (AMC) opened its Alabama office in 2000. An aerospace fastener distributor, the company provides nuts, bolts and screws for military aircraft and missiles manufactured by clients like Boeing, SAIC, Lockheed and the U.S. government.
“We’re not selling screws you put on a Honda or a Chevy, we’re selling screws that go on a Boeing 747,” says Chic Nix, regional manager in the Oxford office.
Some manufacturers of these highly customized items only sell their products through distributors like AMC. And, as one of the few approved distributors for some leading aerospace manufacturers, AMC’s business depends on a “just-in-time” delivery, Nix says. “These large companies drive a hard bargain. If they have a plane down or something, they need a product today. If I have it on my shelves, we can ship it that day.”
The urgency surrounding many of AMC’s customer orders is an important reason for the company’s location in Alabama. “The South is extremely lucrative for aerospace and military industries,” he says. “After California, Alabama and Florida are the top two states for these industries, including both end users and manufacturers.”
Alabama is centrally located among the 10 Southeastern states AMC services, which span west to Louisiana, south to Florida and east up to the Carolinas and Georgia. In addition, Oxford was an ideal location for the office because it’s next door to Anniston, home to one of the company’s large, longtime customers, and just two hours from Huntsville, where a number of other industry companies are located.
In the Oxford office, Nix and his staff of three keep a warehouse stocked full of military-grade fasteners — “nothing commercial,” Nix says — and keep their clients’ planes and missiles in the air, shipping out the items they need just when they need them.
A highly skilled workforce is a key to Star Aviation’s success in Mobile, Smart says. At work here, Ryan Britton.
Photo by Matthew Coughlin
Star Aviation, which specializes in retrofitting post-production commercial aircraft, was founded in Mobile in 1999. The company installs components such as wireless in-flight Internet service, avionic upgrades, cockpit standardization and equipment racks into commercial planes after the manufacturer has completed its work.
Star Aviation is located in close proximity to the new Airbus plant in Mobile, but that’s only coincidental. The company serves major aerospace manufacturers across the country out of its Mobile office, sending teams to airport hubs like Atlanta and Charlotte to complete overnight installation of Star products on commercial airplanes. Some of its top customers include Boeing, Gogo Inflight and Panasonic Avionics, says Gordon Smart, Star Aviation’s owner.
Locating the company in Mobile was an easy decision. “We originated in Mobile, so it was home before the business [was here],” Smart says.
Still, the location has been viable for business reasons. “South Alabama provides a quality of life at a cost that can’t be matched across the nation,” Smart says. “The industrial resources and skilled workforce in this region provide a solid base to grow an aviation company from.”
Providing engineering design and FAA certification services, Star Aviation serves manufacturing companies in the state and across the nation and enables them to provide more customized, modernized products to their end users.
“Star Aviation is a service company that lends its expertise to the aviation industry to help accelerate new technology — whether safety related or passenger experience related — to the airlines by spearheading the complexities of integrating the technology onto the aircraft.”
The Athens plant of global high tech metals specialist Bodycote serves a variety of advanced manufacturing industries. Above, a hot isostatic pressing (HIP) vessel is lowered into place for treatment of aerospace components.
Bodycote, which has a presence in Athens, is a global company that provides sophisticated thermal processing, or heat treating, of aerospace components. Thermal processing, a vital component of any manufacturing process, includes a variety of techniques and specialized engineering processes that improve the properties of metals and alloys and extend the life of components.
Bodycote’s core technologies include heat treatment, metal joining, hot isostatic pressing (HIP) and surface technology, says Tim Iott, general manager of the Athens location. These services make the materials stronger, more durable and corrosion resistant, and enable manufacturers’ components to work more efficiently and last longer.
With customers in a variety of manufacturing industries, Bodycote chooses locations for its operations based on proximity to customers in its core markets, Iott says. Alabama is an ideal location for the company, because it is home to several primary manufacturers in aerospace and defense, such as Airbus and Boeing, along with many of their first-tier suppliers. “Others in the aerospace supply chain are migrating or expanding in Alabama or the Southeastern United States,” Iott says. In addition, a number of Bodycote’s primary automotive customers are located in the state, including Mercedes, Toyota, Hyundai and Honda, with Nissan nearby, along with supply chains for all of them.
Bodycote’s core technology services cover a wide range of applications in general aviation, including commercial, business and military aircraft and commercial and military helicopters. For instance, aircraft engines are designed and built to work in extreme conditions and comply with ever-changing environmental regulations. Engine materials frequently operate at temperatures approaching their melting point, but the use of controlled thermal processing allows these parts to operate reliably at high temperatures for extended periods of time.
“Bodycote is partner to the leading aerospace companies,” Iott says. “As their platforms progress through product life cycles, our service offerings and technical expertise advances with them, through changes in material utilization, as well as geographic shifts in production.”
International aerospace specialist General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems has been fabricating ultra-precision parts for almost 50 years at its plant in Cullman.
General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems
With a presence in Cullman since 1967, General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems has been fabricating ultra-precision structures, complex shapes and assemblies for the aerospace and defense industries for almost 50 years in Alabama. Part of one of the nation’s top 10 defense contractors, the Alabama operation works mostly with exotic metals, including beryllium, along with more conventional materials, such as aluminum, titanium, quartz and glass, and provides a variety of precision machining capabilities in-house. The Cullman facility’s work with beryllium, which is one-third the weight of aluminum and six times stiffer than steel, is ideal for space applications and other demanding environments, says Mike Tweed-Kent, vice president and general manager of the company’s Mission Integration Systems division.
In addition to the Cullman location, the company also has a workforce in Mobile at the Austal USA shipyard, working on the Austal-led Independence variant Littoral Combat Ship for the U.S. Navy. In Mobile, General Dynamics is responsible for the design, integration and testing of the ships’ electronic systems, including the combat and radar systems, networks, seaframe control and other sensor systems.
Alabama has been an ideal location, Tweed-Kent says. “In Alabama, we have been able to build a highly capable and loyal workforce, which has benefitted greatly from the variety of training and education-based resources available in the state,” he says. “Additionally, our close proximity to Huntsville, coupled with our co-location at the Austal shipyard in Mobile, has provided our team with ready access to many of our major customers and industry partners. Having this face time with both the customer and our partners has strengthened our understanding of and connection to the mission.”
Recent growth in Alabama’s high-technology industrial base, including the aerospace industry, has also provided increased opportunities for the General Dynamics team to “further grow and strengthen our partnerships to provide our customers with the cost-effective, mission-critical capabilities,” Tweed-Kent says. “Our customers depend on us for their critical components and systems integration needs. With our long history of uncompromising quality and ability to tackle the most difficult manufacturing and integration challenges, we are able to help our customers cost-effectively leverage the necessary and proven technologies to advance their mission.”
Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.